Jerry Elijah Brown

“Immerse yourself in the present, material, technological, chaotic world,
but don’t be drowned in it. Great scholars discover the life overlooked
and deliver it to the present and future.” 

—Jerry Elijah Brown

By Sam Kolodezh

Following his recent retirement as Dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Montana, Jerry Elijah Brown was inducted as an honorary alumni member of the Gamma of Alabama chapter at Auburn University on April 16, 2013.

Brown received his B.A in Journalism from Auburn University, his M.A in Creative writing from Hollins College, and his Ph.D. in English from Vanderbilt University. He describes himself as a professor that fell into the humanities.

“No epiphany occurred,” explained Brown when speaking of his career in the humanities. “If such a pursuit can happen naturally, mine did.” His original dream was to be an archetypal English professor—“wearing tweeds, and smoking a pipe,” but after spending sometime in the English department, he realized that he wanted to leave that world for the “excitement of newspapering,” he said. Eventually, his career in journalism led him back to academia. 

However, Brown always retained a truly hybrid liberal arts approach to his studies and his career. He is the author of four books covering topics from literary history to biography, and of countless articles on topics ranging from journalism and poetry to literary criticism and screenwriting. Throughout his diverse career, Brown always had a clear sense of his roots and his community. His most recent book Alabama’s Mitcham Wars (Looking Glass Books, 2011) is a collection of essays on a murder cold case in the backwoods district of southwest Alabama that has a personal note through the involvement of his grandfather in the events. Harper Lee praised the book as the best thing to come out of Alabama since her novel To Kill A Mockingbird.

There was no Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Auburn University while he attended as a student, but he always respected and even envied those who were admitted because of their intelligence, work ethic, and the academic status that Phi Beta Kappa membership granted. He was instrumental in establishing a Phi Beta Kappa chapter at Auburn during his tenure as a professor of English there. When Phi Beta Kappa was considering Auburn for a possible chapter, he met with the team and discussed the way the school’s “curriculum was founded on the liberal arts, rather than communicology or delivery systems,” he said.

Not only has Brown had a career that exemplifies Phi Beta Kappa’s values, but he has and is also beloved by his colleagues. When asked why Brown was tapped to become an alumni member this year, Emeritus Professor of English Bert Hitchcock at Auburn explained that Brown’s “induction into ΦBK would have been fitting at any point. He is one of a kind—learned, insightful, curious, articulate, witty, a raconteur of the highest order.” 

Sam Kolodezh is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a senior at the University of Washington majoring in English and philosophy. The University of Washington is home to the Alpha of Washington chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.